Teachers, carers, theologians, medical professionals and others, meeting together to explore a spirituality of community based on friendship, hospitality and conversation - it was a remarkable conference. Sponsored last autumn by the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability, at Aberdeen University, orgainsed by Professor John Swinton, the day featured two very different keynote speakers.
Jean Vanier is founder of L’Arche communities, an international network of local communities. Within L’Arche communities ‘people with learning disabilities and people who do not share that life experience, live together, not as carer and cared for, but as fellow human beings, who share a mutuality of care and need.’ In a world comfortable with hard edged distinctions, sold on efficiency, idolising individual rational choice, dissolving differences into a community of human supportiveness and mutual recognition of need – is both remarkable and prophetic.
Prophetic in the sense of providing a corrective to the self-concerned, often fearful, anxious and grasping way life is now lived in our culture; and prophetic in the sense of gentle critique, an invitation to consider alternative models of human relations. Vanier spoke of fundamental fear, the wound of loneliness, the preciousness of each human being – and did so with tenderness and gentleness, informed by a life experience remarkable in its influence for good in thousands of lives.
By contrast Stanley Hauerwas is one of America ’s leading theologians and ethicists. He disowns any claim to gentleness, is a combative outspoken Texan, eloquent but downright confrontational when he encounters injustice, exclusion and any process or system that diminishes the value and dignity of human life. In a telling contrast he quipped, ‘Where I see an enemy to be defeated, Jean sees a wound to be healed.’ This sharp tongued thinker identified and explored the phrase ‘the politics of gentleness’. He wasn’t always easy to follow, original thinkers seldom are, but as he might say at home, ‘we got the drift.’
Now neither of these men claim that their view of human life and community is the only way to go. And in a climate of party political in-fighting and warmongering, when backs have been stabbed, egos bruised, reputations and track records defended, and payback time gets closer, the phrase ‘politics of gentleness’, has an other-worldly sound. Gentleness is not our preferred way of doing business, nor of interacting socially, nor does gentle human responsiveness deeply inform our most vital relationships; we aren’t even gentle with ourselves.
What was being argued was a change of worldview – a way of looking at others that was not exploitative nor dismissive, that assumed worth and conferred dignity, that sought to understand rather than criticise. Hauerwas described Vanier and his work with a wistfulness that seemed to indicate his own failings in the matter, ‘He exemplifies a way of being which contradicts distrust, and dispels our loneliness of being a fearful human being’. Hauerwas' own definition of being human is also worth pondering: ‘You are stuck with being born; our creature-hood is not chosen; accept life as a gift without regret.’
Yes, and maybe through the politics of gentleness, lived out in our own local communities, informed and sustained by communities practising the love of Christ, we will be able, eventually, to accept every life as God’s gift – without regret.